ETHNews Exclusive | Gavin Wood On Polkadot, A Broken Internet, And The Future Of Crypto


“The web is broken,” says Gavin Wood. Can the blockchain interoperability protocol Polkadot help fix it?

Gavin Wood is somewhat of a controversial figure in the blockchain ecosystem. While the English computer scientist is famous for coding the first functioning implementation of Ethereum in January 2014 (PoC-1), inventing the Solidity contract programming language, and writing the highly technical Ethereum Yellow Paper, he is also infamous for leaving the Ethereum project to pursue a broader vision of the future.

Yet, from Wood’s perspective, Ethereum isn’t relegated to his rearview mirror. Rather, it is a part of a digital highway, indeed a new internet. Wood is the lead developer and founder of the company that maintains the Parity client, Parity Technologies, which allows users to interact with Ethereum on a day-to-day basis, and he hopes to connect a post-Serenity Ethereum to the rest of the blockchain world via an “internet of blockchains.” He is also the president of the Web3 Foundation, which strives for a decentralized and serverless internet through cryptographic methods.

Wood’s expertise and experience in the blockchain space has prepared him for the task of connecting many different types of blockchains that will need to communicate with one another. Wood’s solution for creating that level of interoperability at scale – what he calls a “heterogeneous multi-chain framework” – is known as Polkadot.

Gavin Wood on Polkadot

Polkadot, which is being developed by Parity Technologies, appears to be off to a good start. Its PoC-1 specification was released in May, after the completion of a successful ICO last autumn.

Although Wood downplayed the significance of Polkadot’s PoC-1, comparing it roughly to that of Ethereum’s rudimentary PoC-1, Wood did note that Polkadot’s PoC-1 “does serve to prove a few points.” Perhaps the most significant of which is that, in theory, the Polkadot protocol wouldn’t just connect various blockchains together – it would connect private and consortium chains to the public Ethereum network.

As noted in the Polkadot whitepaper, Polkadot’s “relay-chain” will serve as a type of bedrock “upon which a large number of validatable, globally-coherent dynamic data structures may be hosted.” Polkadot calls these data-structures “parallelized” chains, or “parachains.” According to Polkadot, there is “no specific need for them to be blockchain in nature.”

That opens the door for Polkadot to be far more than a simple bridge between blockchains (which would still be an amazing accomplishment). Rather, Polkadot should be “considered equivalent to a set of independent chains.” Perhaps even broader, Polkadot could one day connect the protocols of various types of distributed ledgers, including blockchains, hashgraphs, and tangles.

ETHNews: Can you describe what you mean by a “heterogeneous multi-chain,” and how Polkadot will one day connect different blockchains together?

Gavin Wood: A multi-chain is a system comprising several chains of blocks, each working in parallel, yet able to interact with each other. It becomes a “heterogeneous multi-chain” when the rules governing the progression of the constituent blocks are different.

ETHNews: How is chronology maintained between chains?

GW: With Polkadot, chronology is generally maintained in lockstep; finality is coordinated and assigned by the relay-chain. Polkadot will not be a “parachain.” If anything, it could be described as the community of parachains which is held together with the relay-chain. One day, Polkadot could indeed facilitate interactions between diverse distributed data structures, including chains like Ethereum and Bitcoin.   

ETHNews: The Polkadot platform is upgradable on-chain and doesn’t require “hard-forking” for updates. How is it possible for Polkadot to be scalable now if the chains it will interoperate with aren’t scaled yet? How have you designed Polkadot to be future proof?

GW: Polkadot, as described in the white paper, and targeted for version 1, is scalable to a degree. This scalability comes from it being a multi-chain, and thus able to process dozens (perhaps hundreds) of PoS chains’ worth of transactions in parallel.

Gavin Wood on the Future of Crypto

Interconnecting dozens or hundreds of decentralized blockchains and other distributed ledgers would be a significant milestone in the longstanding dream of reforming the internet as we know it today.

According to Wood, much of the transformative momentum surrounding the advent of the internet fizzled as status quo corporations and institutions simply moved their business models into the digital realm – taking their centralized, bureaucratic mechanisms with them. While Wood sees the vast potential of what the internet could be, his vision is tempered by the sobering belief that “it hasn’t really altered society, it really wasn’t transformative.”

“The web is broken,” Wood told ETHNews, “because it is increasingly becoming a slave to corporate and establishment interests, raising barriers, enforcing limitations, slowing innovation, and creating a new class of rent-seeking ‘aristocracy.’

While DLTs like blockchain are already making their mark on the internet, perhaps the current most well-known facet of decentralization is the “magic internet money” we know as cryptocurrency – which bows to no bank or government. 

ETHNews: What are your thoughts on a major international institution like the IMF recognizing bitcoin or perhaps adding it to its value basket for Special Drawing Right?

GW: The IMF, or any other establishment organization, won’t recognize bitcoin (or any other actually decentralized cryptocurrency) until the establishment (read: governments and corporations under them) control it. While [the Bitcoin blockchain’s] development is essentially centralized under Blockstream (which is relatively easy to control), the mining on which it depends is centralized primarily in China. This bimodal power system is probably the biggest buttress protecting the sovereignty of bitcoin and is ensuring that it, for now at least, remains a free currency, albeit one that is unlikely to become officially recognized. 

ETHNews: Do you think the “bubble” will eventually pop? Does the crypto/blockchain ecosystem risk potentially more than it can gain in hoping for high-level regulation? Are we trading our passion for glory?

GW: Regarding high-level regulation, that rather depends on what it is that you want to gain. As a child, I was told to be careful for what I wished lest it become true. This sentiment seems pertinent here. Crypto and trust-free technologies offer us an economically compelling alternative to the structures and assumptions on which the global establishment rests. If they accepted what we do with open arms, I’d worry that they knew something I didn’t … Oh, and all bubbles eventually burst, by definition. 


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